Even if you've never seen a John Waters movie, you're probably faintly aware of Divine. Her larger than life persona began on a small scale as Harris Glenn Milstead, a bullied overweight boy living in Baltimore. But before being declared by People as "The Drag Queen of the Century" (much to RuPaul's chagrin), Divine was subverting the concept of both conventional drag and film. With John Waters as his guru, Glenn was dubbed Divine, and never looked back afterward. I Am Divine shows us how drag was forever capsized by the weighty force of this divine presence.
As Waters has stated many times, him and his gaggle of Baltimore misfits (who called themselves the Dreamlanders) never set out trying to change how audiences--and the film industry--perceived the moviegoing experience; they were simply doing their best to stay out of trouble as much as possible. In Waters' novel, Role Models, he even speculates as to whether or not he and his crew might have turned out like the Manson family if it weren't for their cinematic outlet. And, of course, without such a passion for experimentation, the character of Divine may never have been birthed.
In addition to standing for bad taste and all things trashily camp, Divine was an emblem of excess and decadence. It was in everything she did--from her weight to her spending habits. Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, who has made documentaries about other gay icons like Vito Russo, interviews those closest to Divine with the purpose of illuminating what a life force the performer was. And, in many ways, I Am Divine is meant to show the bittersweetness of Divine's success, which seemed to come too late.
Reaching the pinnacle of her career prosperity the year she would die from a heart attack, 1988, Divine received rave reviews for her performance as Edna Turnblad, the mother of a rebellious daughter named Tracy (Ricki Lake). It was also around this time that producers and agents were finally taking Divine seriously as an actor, not just a drag performer. In fact, the morning of Divine's death, she was slated to appear on the set of Married With Children for a recurring male role. All those years of exaggerating the absurd and saying fuck you/fuck off to anyone who would listen had at last paid off on a commercial level.
Waters lovingly and lamentingly notes, "Divine stood for all outsiders. He stood for anybody that didn't fit in, that exaggerated what everybody hated, turned it into a style and won." Even when she was at her most despised (Pink Flamingos), Divine exhibited a sense of tenacity and immunity to persecution that was almost more inspiring than the diabolical arch of her eyebrows. More than anything, I Am Divine is an homage and a eulogy for a performer who altered the course of drag, film and, in the end, is always going to be pigeonholed as the first and last person to eat dog shit on camera.